By Eleanor Arnason
The translation of Goxhat poetry presents many problems, due in part to the Goxhat language, but also to the biological and social realities that underlie the language. The foremost problem is the Goxhat’s ambiguous sense of personal identity. Much of the time, Goxhat think of their entire species as a single being. When not thinking of the species as one undivided self, they regard their “teams,” groups of four to thirty-two Goxhat, as individuals. Single Goxhat are called “aspects” or “parts” and are rarely seen as independent entities; although a famous poem, “The Counter of Waves,” describes the last survivor of a Goxhat team, beaten down by many ocean voyages.
Other problems have to do with Goxhat gender (there are four sexes, male, female and two forms of neuter) and the Goxhat child-rearing system. The young grow up in crèches amid large groups of unrelated children. Professional “childherds” care for them, and they meet many adult Goxhat of all sexes, who come to the crèches to pet and play with them. But they don’t know their parents, or any relatives, as individuals, and kinship plays no part in their upbringing.
All of this is hard to translate in a way that is meaningful to humans. Hardest of all is the Goxhat economy: a huge commercial game similar to human capitalism, except the Goxhat do not play for keeps. Instead, every sixteen years they settle up. At that time, the winners of the game are announced and rewarded. The size of their award depends on how often the team has won, though it always includes the right to lay fertile eggs. A first-time winner may receive a modest victory poem in addition to reproductive rights. A four time winner, or Grand Champion, will get an epic and a public monument. When the award ceremonies are over, the game’s “chips,” property of every kind, are redistributed throughout the entire species, and the game begins anew.(1)
In sum, the translator has to find a way to make comprehensible and sympathetic the poetry of a species with a different (and possibly nonexistent) sense of personal identity; a different number of sexes; no recognizable families, and an economic system which strikes humans as ludicrous.
Last of all, there is the problem of the poetry’s form. Unlike most modern human poetry, it does not rely on rhyme, but on alliteration and a strong beat. In this, it is similar to ancient Germanic poetry. In addition, the mood of many Goxhat poems—bleak and dark with a haunting sense that happiness is transitory—seems oddly like the mood of a small body of ancient Germanic literature, interesting largely because it is written in a language which is one of the roots of modern humanish.
In the hope of making “The Glutton” more accessible, this translation has been based on that literature, as it has been translated into humanish. The rare student of Anglo-Saxon who reads this will recognize the image of life as a bird that flies through a brightly lit building. Lovely in its original human version, it replaces a Goxhat simile, which is untranslatable.
Those were the days. Great were the teams
That labored for gain, leaving no stone upright,
But all turned over, their grubby(2) bottoms
Bare to the heavens and other Goxhat.
Factories fumed. Bridges extended
From bank to bank, bringing wealth
To bright-eyed builders. Keen investors
Knew the proverb caveat emptor,
Made their profit through thought and care.
As birds soar seeking fishes
Day after day over distant waters
Merchants went, provident wanderers
Seeking profit in sleek-hulled ships.
Carved prows crested the billows.
Long oars cut waves like knives.
Sails ate wind, filling their bellies.
Bold-eyed sailors minded the sheets.
Sixteen the team, raised together
The same crèche giving all to the world.
Four were men, hardy rowers.
Four were women, deft climbers of rigging.
The rest were neuter, skillful traders,
Their cool minds knowing profit and loss.
Strong legs bore wide, hairy bodies,
Piercing-eyed with knife-sharp pinchers.
Each was handsome, each ambitious,
Keen for fame and honest profit.
So they came the fearless shipmates
To a harbor below steep cliffs.
Dark the shadows hanging over
Sturdy houses and stone-built piers.
Streets were empty, windows broken,
Wind howled through once-rich stores.
Looking around each part of the hero
Asked the others, “What’s going on?”
Soon to the hero an answer came,
A grey-haired Goxhat crawling slowly
On crippled legs. One arm was missing.
“There is a monster haunting here.
“Long ago a team was ship-wreaked.
On a bare isle bereft of life.
Water welled from an icy fountain,
Amid bare stones that bore no growth.
“Long they survived on scavenged shellfish,
Storm-driven seaweed, the fountain’s flood,
Till hunger gnawing drove them crazy.
Some chewed their fingers. Some ate their mates.
“Think of this: a stony island
Ringed with foam, cold wind booming
And waves crashing, while the crazed team,
Split into pieces, hunts itself to death
“Till one remains, all the rest
Reposing in it. Strong at last, it left,
Broad arms striking the fearsome billows,
Beating water like iron on an anvil,
Swimming here to haunt our land.
“Sometimes it thinks it’s a crowd,
Full of teammates. They speak in its mind.
Sometimes it thinks the world is empty,
And it alone alive. Sometimes it’s dead;
And the universe is nothing, a dream that fades
From a ghost’s mind. Always it hunts.
Huge from its horrid diet,
It tears our bodies and takes the wealth we made.
“Fine gold has fed its greed,
Good machines and fishing smacks,
Handsome markets. Most of all, ourselves.
None comes back. No settling day
Returns wealth to those who made it.
The game of commerce, dear to Goxhat,
Never starts again…”
(Several lines have been lost.)
The hero spoke: “This shall not continue!
Death is the doom of those who break rules,
Gobbling gain through violence garnered.
A game’s not a game when played without limits.”
(An entire section appears to be missing.)
Ghastly and grim, the glutton came in then,
Breaking the door down. The hero rose,
Brandishing pinchers, in hands holding knives:
Sixteen together, hairy and handsome
In vigorous youth, as yet fearing little.
A Goxhat moon full and yellow
Lit the monster, brightly shining
Through roof-gaps roughly rent.(3)
Rearing up, its should-be-hidden
Gaping mouth was shown to all.
Teeth gnashed. A tongue protruded,
Grossly waving. The hero struck.
Fierce the fight and fell the ending.
Two neuters were gathered up,
Arm-tucked and quickly carried
From the wrecked house to high cliffs.
There the monster crouched,
Gnawed and tore the captive neuters,
Wise in counsel. They screamed with pain.
(Like a bird fleeing storms
That briefly flies through an all-night market,
We have warmth and light, comfort and happiness,
For moments only. Soon we return again
Into driving wind and freezing rain.
The wise know this and savor what’s bright.)
Bones fell, licked of marrow.
Empty skulls bounced to teammates,
Who gathered up the gristly fragments,
Grieving greatly. Now a neuter spoke,
Cool of mind, caring nothing for revenge,
But only rightness and a lawful gain:
“Nothing cuts the glutton. The monstrous change
That made it huge has turned its hide to iron.
Knives will not help us, nor piercing arrows,
Sharp-edged swords, spears with blades that bite.
Wrapped in isolation, hardened,
The monster’s safe…”
(Another section is missing. The story resumes when the hero, ten parts or aspects still alive, tracks the glutton to its lair, a seaside cave.)
Descending sheer cliffs
To a sheltered harbor, dark and still,
They craftily came, each part clinging
To rough rock with supple fingers.
Across their backs were slung thick cudgels,
Their pinchers held nets of twisted rope.
Below them muttering in shadow
The glutton argued with the selves
It had eaten. Each in turn
Spoke with the monster’s voice,
Complaining of murder and autophagy.
The monster excused: “It was me or you.”
“We are your other selves!”
“No one is me
Save me only! I alone am I!”
So back and forth,
The monster argued, until the hero rushed
In the gaping entrance and tangled it with nets.
Great the struggle, though they hit it hard
With heavy cudgels. Still it dragged them
Cross the stony floor and into water.
Deep they sank, held as one
By thick ropes, hero and monster,
Murk around them and sucking mire.
Sight was useless. Their pinchers grasped
The monster’s arms and legs with hair like wire,
Holding tightly, twisting as they held,
Till bones broke, poking through the skin.
Blood gushed. The glutton roared in pain.
Rising from the darkness wrapped in rope,
It floated on the surface like a harpooned fish
In red-tinged water. The hero popped in sight,
Eight parts only. Two never rose,
Nor were bodies found…
So they brought the dying beast to shore,
Speared with its own bone, butchered from within.
From its bloody maw came angry voices:
The eaten partners crying for revenge.
Two neuters still were left. They said,
“Not revenge but balance, the brass bar even,
abacus beads arranged in order, shining,
A statement and explanation, we offer.”
“Blood,” cried the bloody maw. “Payment. Gain.”
And ‘Blood,’ again.” Then the beast was gone,
Voice bubbling to silence. The hero found
Great treasure in its cave and took this home.
(1) This does not mean the Goxhat disassemble great concentrations of capital every sixteen years. If they did, they would not be the economic powerhouse they are today. Instead, at the time for settlement, the “commanding heights” of capitalism become cooperatives, which are often taken over by canny teams during the new game.
(2) The stones’ bottoms were covered with the immature members of species ecologically and physiologically similar to burrowing insects on Earth.
(3) The missing section probably described the monster “roof riding” or “shingle stomping” before it broke the door.
Eleanor Arnason published her first story in 1973. Since then she has published six novels and 30+ works of short fiction. Her fourth novel, A Woman of the Iron People, won the James Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards in 1992. Her fifth novel, Ring of Swords, won a MInnesota Book Award in 1994. In recent decades she has concentrated on short fiction, though she is currently finishing a novel, a sequel to Ring of Swords. “The Glutton” is one of several stories about the Goxhat, aliens who live in the universe of Arnason’s Lydia Duluth stories.